“Soldierin’ and policin’ — they ain’t the same thing.”
— Maj. Howard Colvin, “The Wire,” Season 3, Episode 10
Sometimes the best of intentions turns into something ugly. The U.S. Department of Defense’s Section 1033 program, which provides guns and other excess military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, ranks high among the many well-intentioned law-and-order efforts that failed.
The program sprang to life almost 22 years ago when civil unrest was rampant. Section 1033, a line item in a DOD budget proposal, was billed by law-and-order advocates as a match made in heaven for hard-pressed, inner-city street cops manning the thin blue lines of law enforcement.
Pandering politicians were already calling for police with more convincing firepower. Bigger guns always make scared people feel better. They certainly made me feel better when I was a peace officer. I carried three of them every day I was a Texas lawman; my service weapon, my .380 boot gun, and my seven-round sawed-off 12-gauge pump shotgun.
There was a saying on the mean streets that rhymed with the sound made by an evil-eyed cop racking a round of Double 00 into his 12-gauge pump. “Clickety clack,” the saying went, “get back.”
I shot mine in earnest one thunderous time in eight years, messing up the drop-down ceiling in a dirty-leg bar while two of us were breaking up a 2 a.m. brawl in a bar full of honky-tonk heroes going fist city over a bevy of six-pack darlins’ vying for their love. It sent everyone within 50 feet flying out the exits and settled the escalating clash in one smoke-filled second. That kind of raw power is dangerously seductive. It begs to do it again.
Almost 20 years later, President Bill Clinton signed into law H.R. 3230, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997. The bill contained Section 1033, which allows the Secretary of Defense to sell or transfer excess military equipment to local law-enforcement agencies. Between the golden years of 2006 and 2014, the Department of Defense transferred more than $1.5 billion worth of equipment, including more than 600 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, 79,288 assault rifles, 205 grenade launchers, 11,959 bayonets, 50 airplanes, 422 helicopters and $3.6 million worth of camouflage and other items of “deception equipment.”
About 80 percent of all U.S. counties received some transfers, and those transfers increased in the same period by 1,414 percent, according to the Government Accounting Office.
Social and political science theorists were alarmed. Their data shows that using military equipment requires big increases in combat training to safely field it. The range and inherent lethality of military grade weapons demands disciplined military tactics to prevent fratricide. With the tactics come inescapable militarization.
Most cops love firepower. Shooting a high-powered killing machine is a head rush. Brrrrrp — 20 rounds downrange! Very few things are more viscerally satisfying to frustrated cops then ripping man-sized targets to shreds with the gentle squeeze of a trigger.
One police trainer’s quote illustrates very well the danger of mixing criminal justice and military tactics. Dr. Pete Kraska, a professor and police scientist at the University of Kentucky, said:
“Most of these guys just like to play war; they get a rush out of search-and-destroy missions instead of the bullshit they do normally.”
After 2014, wholesale handouts under Section 1033 got a little more iffy. Wired magazine recently revealed that “seemingly lax oversight” has created myriad unanticipated problems. While Officer Friendly is being turned into Officer Deadly, less idealistic people are figuring out how to share the largesse.
In a 2017 sting operation, the GAO recovered more than 100 items purloined from the 1033 program — including night-vision goggles and pipe-bomb materials — with an estimated value of $1.2 million, the Wired magazine article said.
“All it took was the creation of a fake law-enforcement agency, website and shipping address. The GAO’s fraudulent application was processed and approved within a week,” the GAO conceded.
According to the Pentagon’s Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO), which oversees delivery of military equipment to law-enforcement agencies, more than $7.4 billion worth of property has been transferred since the program’s inception to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies that have signed up for free stuff.
In fiscal year 2019, the last year for which records are available, local police received $293 million worth of military hardware. According to LESO, most of the surplus equipment is “mundane” office equipment, clothing, and radios. But the haul includes “controlled equipment” like bigger guns (.50 caliber machine guns), tracked armored vehicles and “area denial weapons” like grenade launchers and automatic weapons for departments that can prove need.
When 9/11 crushed the sense of invincibility Americans had enjoyed since beating the British in the War of 1812, one answer that seemed to make sense to politicians was providing police with more and more guns and goodies, and Section 1033 was the way to do it.
Lost in the shuffle was the fact that the Arab terrorists who hijacked the airplanes used to kill almost 3,000 innocent civilians were armed with no more than box cutters.
So, does increased militarization of law enforcement agencies lead to an increase in violent behavior among officers? A lot of researchers think so. The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in July 2014 is a thoroughly researched case in point. On day two of the citywide protest, St, Louis County police showed up in armored vehicles wearing camouflage, bulletproof vests and gas masks, brandishing shotguns and M4 carbines, a derivative of the military’s instantly recognized M-16 assault rifle. Think Lafayette Square in D.C. last week for a visual cue.
The Obama administration subsequently launched an inquiry that resulted in Executive Order 13688. It banned law-enforcement agencies from acquiring certain equipment and restricted them from acquiring some of the more lethal war-making materials.
In response, former Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tx.) introduced the “Protecting Lives Using Surplus Equipment Act of 2017” to gut Obama’s executive order. It went nowhere, but neither did Section 1033. Trump’s newest director of national intelligence says the Obama Administration’s belief that 1033 did more harm than good was fallacious and dangerous to law and order. Ratcliffe bloviated:
“It would be one thing if there was some evidence that showed state and local law enforcement had abuse [sic] or misused the equipment, and then caused undue or unnecessary harm to American citizens. That isn’t the case”.
Researchers from several disciplines studied data from four states — Connecticut, Maine, Nevada and New Hampshire — that showed 1033 recipients, studied by county between 1998 and 2014, demonstrated an increase in the number of observed police killings.
Along with that came growing numbers of badge-heavy cops who think policing is kicking somebody’s ass.
To put a sharp point on the researcher’s findings, a program that turned civilian police departments into well-armed adjuncts of the country’s armed forces is still causing more pain than good.
It’s past time to reverse Section 1033 and demilitarize civilian police. Your life and rights could depend on it.